In the old walled city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi is a small but gorgeous red mosque with a very unusual name. Under the central dome of the shrine is a plaque which reads ‘Masjid Mubarak Begum’. That’s its official name. Unofficially, it’s called ‘Randi ki Masjid’ or ‘Prostitute’s Mosque’.
But that’s a little misleading. Two hundred years ago, the word ‘randi’ did not have the terrible connotations it has today. In the hierarchy of women entertainers – concubines, courtesans and nautch girls – a randi was in fact a refined and much sought-after prima donna.
The two names of the mosque mirror the duality of the woman who commissioned it in the 19th century – was her claim to fame being the Begum or wife of a senior British administrator? Or had she never fully shed the world she had inhabited before she discovered, and craved, the trappings of high society?
To find out who this Begum really was, let us first turn to her husband, the legendary British Military Commander and the first English Resident (Administrator) in the Mughal court in Delhi. He was Major-General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) and is himself remembered through a “cloud kissing monument” built in 1828, as described by American writer Mark Twain. The monument, which soars 157 feet, is an iconic column 1,450 km away from Delhi, in Kolkata. Today, it is known as Shaheed Minar – The Martyr’s Column. But more on this later.
Ochterlony lived in a time when the British in India were completely enamoured of the grand and lavish lifestyle of the Indian elites. They were thoroughly spoilt by the comforts and opulence they enjoyed courtesy the Mughals, and relished everything exotically Indian, including nautch girls.
Ochterlony was the quintessential ‘White Mughal’. According to historian and author of White Mughals (2002), William Dalrymple, these were Englishmen who wholeheartedly adopted the Indo-Persian culture of the time.
Ochterlony was madly in love with this lifestyle – and with Mubarak Begum. He married her even though his peers in the British East India Company opposed the idea.
She became his 13th wife. Her full name was Mahruttun Mubarak ul Nissa Begum but was popularly known as Mubarak Begum (d. 1878). Once a common nautch girl from Delhi, she was now suddenly a diva in the same city.
There are quite a few mosques built by women in the Mughal era dotting Old Delhi and Agra, but ‘Randi Ki Masjid’ is the only one commissioned by an Indian Begum of an Englishman with a questionable past.
Who Was David Ochterlony?
Major-General Sir David Ochterlony was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in colonial America, and was a highly regarded military officer of the East India Company in British-India. He also twice held the powerful post of British Resident in the Mughal court in Delhi.
Ochterlony sailed to India as a cadet in 1777 CE, at age 18. He rose up the ranks quickly and proved his mettle in the many military engagements he participated in. These included the Second Anglo-Maratha War and the Battle of Delhi (1804), where he fought off the Maratha army led by Yashwantrao Holkar. He also led the Company’s army to victory in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, where the victory of the English over the Gurkhas resulted in the Treaty of Sugauli, signed in 1816.
According to this treaty, a vast swathe of Nepal’s territory was handed over to the British, which include present-day Sikkim, Darjeeling, the Kumaon and Garhwal ranges. Ochterlony also recognised the potential of the Gurkhas in military service and was instrumental in this community forming an integral part of the Indian Army.
As the British Resident in Delhi, Ochterlony embraced the Indo-Persian culture of 19th century Delhi and the Mughal court, which made him one of the most intriguing characters in British-India. While he was known to have had 13 Indian wives (some historians describe them as concubines), the youngest one – Mubarak Begum – was clearly most favoured.
Some historical documents indicate that she was a Brahmin girl from Pune, who had been converted to Islam and brought to Delhi as a dancing girl. Being Ochterlony’s favourite companion, her nickname was ‘Generalee Begum’ – the ‘General’s Wife’.
In 1825, Ochterlony resigned from the Company over a difference of opinion with the then Governor-General Lord William Pitt Amherst, who had overruled a decision he had taken as Military Commander. However, he did not leave India.
Dalrymple says in his book White Mughals: “Ochterlony was a man already well used to walking the cultural faultlines between different worlds.” He further wrote, “Having made India his home, vowed never to leave.” Ochterlony breathed his last that very year in Meerut.
Bazaar-i-Husn And The Tale Of The ‘Generalee Begum’
As you meander through the cable-matted sky and congested, unkempt streets of Chawri Bazaar in Old Delhi, it becomes difficult to conjure up the fascinating tales of the 19th century as they unfolded here. This is a very old wholesale market of brass, copper and paper products, and is situated close to the food trails of the historic Parantha Wali Gully and was Bazaar-i-Husn – the ‘Market of the Beauties’ – in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a marketplace by day and an entertainment zone by night.
This may be apocryphal but there used to be four types of entertainers back then: On the lowest rung was the Bedni or common prostitute. Next was Domini, who performed a song-and-dance routine loosely based on the Kathak dance form with erotic movements for soldiers and the common merchant class. This resembled the modern-day mujra dance. They were camp followers.
Further up were traditional Kathak dancers with their dazzling pirouettes (tawaf) and skilful singing. They were called Tawaifs. And, above all, was the Randi – the diva, the prima donna, with a manner that was ever so refined.
Young men from elite families were sent to her to learn civility, the art of conversation and poetry. Randis were the crème de la crème among the tawaifs, and the who’s who of Hindustani society lined up to seek their company. Always surrounded by the powerful, the Randi knew the city’s secrets. And this is where Mubarak Begum spent her very early years in Delhi.
Of Mubarak Begum, Dalrymple says, “Much younger than Ochterlony, she certainly appears to have had the upper hand in her relationship with the old General.” Another observer remarked that Ochterlony’s mistress “is the mistress now of everyone within the walls”, referring to the walled city of Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad.
Despite her dubious past before she met the British Military Commander, Mubarak Begum is referred to in Ochterlony’s will as “Beebee Mahruttun Moobarukh ul Nissa Begume, alias Begum Ochterlony, mother of my younger children”. Hence, to Company soldiers and to the locals, she was known as ‘Generalee Begum’.
Masjid Mubarak Begum
Scholars believe that Mubarak Begum built the mosque in Hauz Qazi in Chawri Bazaar in Old Delhi in 1822-23. Others say it was financed by Ochterlony in his beloved Begum’s name, to legitimise the social standing of his courtesan mistress in the upper echelons of society.
However, historian Swapna Liddle said in one of her interviews, “Even though the British later (after Ochterlony’s death) reduced Mubarak to a mistress, she was definitely Ochterlony’s wife and an extremely influential woman. She used her wealth to build this mosque.”
Mubarak Begum was despised by the British and the Mughals alike for her raw social and political ambition.
She offended the British by calling herself ‘Lady Ochterlony’, and offended the Mughals by awarding herself the title ‘Qudsia Begum’, previously held by the Mughal Emperor’s mother, according to Dalrymple.
Since she had been a dancing girl in the distant past, no respectable Mughal or other Muslim was keen on entering the mosque associated with her as it had acquired the epithet, ‘Randi ki Masjid’.
After Ochterlony’s death, Mubarak Begum married Wilayat Ali, a Mughal soldier, who became a captain of the royal troops during Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign. Popular belief is that Mubarak Begum paid a handsome gratuity, the nazrana, to the Mughal Court for Wilayat Ali’s appointment as captain because she wanted to continue to be the wife of an important personality and retain her clout!
Whether or not she clawed her way up the social ladder, Mubarak Begum had considerable social cache. The last big Mushaira (Urdu and Hindi poetry recitation festival) held in Delhi of that era was held in her house. Around 40 poets attended the Mushaira and Mirza Ghalib was among them. Mubarak Begum died in 1878 and the administration of the mosque built in her name was taken over by the British government. Currently, the mosque is in the custody of the Delhi Wakf Board.
The Cloud Kissing Monument
While the mosque helps us remember Mubarak Begum, David Ochterlony’s memorial monument was re-dedicated by the United Front Government of the state of West Bengal in 1969. If you were born after 1970, you would probably not identify the 157-foot-high, “cloud-kissing” column in the Kolkata Maidan near Eden Gardens as the ‘Ochterlony Monument’. You would call it ‘Shaheed Minar – Martyr’s Column’, now dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the Indian Independence movement.
‘The Monument’, as it was referred to by the old residents of Kolkata, was built in 1828, in memory of Ochterlony, three years after his death. He was commemorated for his military triumphs. The column is a combination of styles, with a classical fluted column, a Syrian upper portion, and a Turkish dome. Its foundation is Egyptian.
But why would a military general who resigned from service due to differences with the then Governor-General have a memorial dedicated to him?
Brian Paul Bach, writer, artist, filmmaker and a maps specialist, says in his book Calcutta’s Edifice – The Buildings of a Great City (2006): “Sir David Ochterlony – 1758-1825 – is, for all practical purposes, forgotten, but more in his native Massachusetts than here(Kolkata), for though this work ( the Monument) is now a neutral chess piece which provides a bit of a decor for the vast Maidan, the monument’s original significance represents an added insight into the development of early nineteenth-century Calcutta. Hungry for heroes to commemorate so as not to make the maidan too much of a wilderness, the citizens of Calcutta chose this old Company soldier to hail.”
He also wrote, “Calcutta was deep in British territory and that fact had to be made clear to anyone coming up the (river) Hooghly for the first time. A resounding statement; a claim should be made; a declaration to be public. Ochterlony’s civil and military triumphs were sufficient to inspire a sustainable zeal for his memory, enough to find fruition in a major monument.”
Interestingly, both these memorials – the mosque and the monument – situated roughly 1,450 km apart, will be celebrating their bicentenaries in the current decade, in 2023 and 2028, respectively. It is an excuse to remember the Generalee Begum and her loving General.
Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book Without Prejudice, a columnist and a Kolkata history buff. His Twitter handle is @DevasisC.
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